Adrien Brody: The FRONTRUNNER Interview

Adrien Brody did not talk to me about film. Or acting. Strange, isn’t it? It’s something he’s rather good at.

It would be a shame, then, not to mention some highlights across his thirty-year career. Most prominent among them is his Academy Award-winning performance as Polish musician Władysław Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s searing Holocaust drama The Pianist (2002). He’s collaborated twice with Wes Anderson, starring in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Films including The Thin Red Line (1998), Summer of Sam (1999), King Kong (2005), Hollywoodland (2006), Predators (2010), Midnight in Paris (2011), and television serials Houdini (2014) and Peaky Blinders (2017) all bear his signature.

He wanted to talk about art: the art of expressing a deep empathy and curiosity for people, one he says he’s possessed all his life. Growing up with parents Elliot Brody, a retired history professor and painter, and celebrated photographer Sylvia Plachy had imbued young Brody with a quiet, bubbling fascination with his surroundings. He began drawing as a teenager, then shifted into acting, staying firmly rooted in that discipline since the early 1990s. While visual art was not an avenue he felt confident enough to pursue long-term, Brody has woven in and out of observing and creating art, all the while. He once presented a recreation of his studio space at an art fair in New York, which was anything but commercial. Not one piece for sale.

Now he’s exploring visual art, in earnest, holding onto a New York-based studio, even as he prepares for his third film with Anderson, The French Dispatch, to be released this year. But what does he really want to talk about? As far as I can tell, he wants to talk. Just talk. To emote. To reveal his sensibilities without trepidation or judgment. As I listened, with an ocean and continent between us, I sensed his deep gratitude in reflecting on his journey, tinged with weariness, underpinned with an infectious charm.

For our Fall 2020 Quarterly cover feature, FRONTRUNNER is proud to present an exclusive interview with Adrien Brody, with exclusive photography by Chad Moore.

Photo credit: Chad Moore

I’m going to start off by asking a mundane question: how are you and how have you been keeping during this blustery pandemic?

I’m feeling quite well, thank you. Such a complex time for everyone. Obviously, its given us all a lot of time for introspection and [a] recalibrating, of sorts. It’s been very hard for so many people. It saddens me a lot to see the state of the world, aside from the pandemic, including the horrors of Beirut…this never-ending stream of hardships. It’s a strange time we’re all living in.

Melancholy and the state of the world is the hardest burden to bear, not even within your own hands but the feeling on your shoulders. I suppose some people might have looked at lockdown as some sort of extended holiday, but it was really home confinement.

But, if you have an artistic sensibility, that state of melancholy does inspire…you can steer it, you can navigate it to that yearning that you have, to try and tap into a deeper connection with your work.

I was just reading about the musician Scott Joplin and how he fell so far into his (presumed) melancholy that it consumed him, and he ended up institutionalised for the last part of his life. But I’m no expert on music.

Well, you know, Van Gogh never escaped his suffering, and he never received any acknowledgment.

You must have been reading my brain, there. Van Gogh is the perfect archetype of the “mad genius.”

Yeah. He’s iconic in the sense of the tragedy of having a brother being an art dealer and never selling work. To constantly yearn to grow and improve, and do better. But to have all of these gnawing insecurities. And then to become the preeminent fine artist! It’s just unbelievable. [Laughs]

Tell me about your own interests in contemporary art, about what you do, how you do. What you think you’ve come to and where you think you’re going next?

Personally? That’s interesting. I guess I’ve always been drawn to – my work as an artist has evolved. When I was a boy I painted, and I enjoyed it very much. I grew up in the home of my mother, Sylvia Plachy. You’re familiar with her? With her work?

I am. She’s extraordinary.

She is extraordinary. She’s a real artist. I’ve been so heavily influenced by her and her work, by her vision and her creative sensibility. As a boy, I was steeped in imagery. Both of my parents have a deep understanding and a deep desire – they’re very empathetic. There’s a quality in my mother’s photography that shows both the torment of life, and strangeness, eeriness of the past; the haunting qualities of the past, and present. So complex and so beautiful. My yearning to explore creatively, even as an actor, I’ve yearned to find work that has social relevance and some meaning. I feel like there’s a commentary, I do quite an array of things with my artwork.

I did a show years ago called Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Handguns, referencing how our culture in America – how strange it is, what we’re fed, and how violently it’s fed to us with such a veracity, almost like fast food. Fast food is also a form of violence put upon us. It’s cost-prohibitive for a single mother to feed her children and cook, and also work. If you go anywhere outside of a major metropolis, options for healthy, nutritious, reasonably-priced food as an alternative is almost impossible to find. It bothers me. I grew up in New York City, grew up on pizza and Chinese food and ate “out”, but I was fortunate to have a home-cooked meal with my parents. That influenced me. So the messaging, the manipulation of what we are fed, it bothered me.

Photo credit: Chad Moore

Then, there’s a degree of morbidity and a degree of humour in that, that also became apparent. My upbringing in New York City and the schizophrenia of all of that energy, the distraction and the noise, and my yearning to escape that to the solitude of the countryside, nature. A lot of my work is influenced by what I see in nature. Patterns, fishes, stone, water, earth, the way nature takes over.

Essentially, I’ve been very blessed to have the influence of two very creative parents. My father is an accomplished painter, as well. Seeing a knockoff of a Mary Magdalene…[laughs] I mean, it’s brilliant! I was half-kidding, but he would make an amazing art forger! He loved these Old Masterworks, but could never afford one. So, he whittled away at it for months and months in the attic of his garage, and he came out with a Mary Magdalene! [Laughs]

As the individual, as Adrien, when did you first start to grow for yourself? You had this incredible foundation, you had the capability of absorbing the empathy of your parents. It’s beautifully apparent. When did you start to put down your roots as an artist?

I’ve always been a painter and an actor. Those switches were always turned on. At a very young age, I realised that a career as an actor was attainable. But exploring that, which I was also led into by my mother who, on assignment, was photographing at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Had she not photographed the acting school and not had her intuition, who knows, right? That made it viable for me to be discovered.

But I painted as a child, all through my early teens, and drew incessantly. I drew in all my notebooks all through college. I went to a high school for performing arts, which was also an art school (they had a Fine Art department), and a lot of my friends were painters, graffiti artists. Graffiti culture was a big element of learning, reading all the writing from the murals on the walls and on the subways. I learned about the vast array of humanity in New York on those trains. But also [laughs] an education in graffiti culture!

That era of the 80s and 90s in New York was such an artistic time. Even just going with my mom to The Village Voice, meeting the creative writers and the people who worked at the Voice at that time. People my mom photographed like Basquiat, Warhol, Timothy Leary, just these amazing creative forces. That was brought home to me.

I’m sorry I digress a bit…

Digressions are welcome!

I rediscovered my love of painting much later in life. I feel like I’ve spent so much of my creative time devoted to an acting career.

The concept of becoming a painter seemed too daunting and too challenging, and I didn’t really have the confidence to pursue it as I have, of late. I’m really, really grateful for discovering a love that was on par with my love of acting. It preceded an understanding and an education in acting technique that I’ve applied towards a career. It’s a remarkable thing to have reawakened something that very much is a part of me.

Can you identify the connective tissue between being an actor and being an artist? Surely there must be a great deal of crossover in the way you put your work out there in front of an audience.

Yes. Very much so. They’re both very similar and very different. I feel that many deeply creative individuals have a degree of ability to express themselves in multiple forms. A musician can make a wonderful painter, a photographer could make an actor, and vice versa. There are no limits of what you’re capable of delving into. I find parallels, obviously.

Acting is a much more collaborative avenue. Unless you’re the creator (most actors are not) and the fact that you’re writing, let’s say, as a producer you get to a place in your career where you have some control in the character and formation of the roles that you’re portraying – you’re inhabiting either someone else or another person’s vision of a work and are a piece of the director’s vision. I love collaborating, especially when you have remarkably great people to work together with. They’ll elevate you, and vice versa. That’s such a wonderful thing to keep people working towards one goal and in harmony. It’s not always the case, and sometimes it becomes frustrating.

I think painting, for me, has the autonomy and the sense of freedom that I have – having a more solo endeavour. A space to devote all of that creative energy that is reliant on other forces, to actually create the work. It’s such a nurturing thing to be up late at night, to have an idea and to jam upon that. To stretch a canvas, to envision something and bring [it] to life. To learn from that, to improve upon it, to develop techniques – it’s so liberating! I have a number of techniques that I work with, and have a never-ending space with which to immerse myself in.

Is there a particular medium that you find really challenging, that you have to wrestle with, or which medium do you find particularly easy?

There’s struggling, and there are certain styles of painting that border on feeling tedious.

Lately I’ve been much more interested in abstraction. It’ll have a degree of figurative elements – although I can get there, it’s very, very challenging. I like the challenge of coming up with things that are a little less specific, if you will. I do work with some spray, less precise work, collage. I’ve not shown any recent work [for] a long time. There are some older works that aren’t really representative of how I think.

I feel like when I first showed my work publicly, I felt like I had to prove that I could paint. I pulled together with a friend of mine who’s a painter, I had my show and his and we showed together. I was much less disciplined, I guess. I felt like I had to throw a lot out there, and I don’t need that. I don’t do that. I did a show at an art fair in New York where I chronicled my life in a sixteen-foot collage, with paint. A combination of my mother’s imagery, my own photography, drawings and musings on that. That was really very exciting. But I didn’t show any of my paintings. I recreated my studio space to invite people in. I didn’t put one piece for sale. I had one painting on an easel where I had an old cloth draped over it. That was my show. It was really like a love letter to my mother and my mother’s influence.

Adrien Brody
Love, Death (2020)
Acrylic, oil and spray paint on canvas
90″ x 150″
Courtesy of the artist

So it was quite anti-commercial, but very poignant, for yourself.

Yeah, there was no opportunity to go commercially with that, and I didn’t even show one of the paintings I’d been working on – that collage work has inspired other works in that vein, as well. It’s very hard to see that journey, even the journey with the hardships and struggles needed to become a working actor. There was more to explore in a creative sense.

It’s a privilege to be able to flex your muscles in that sense, without having the need to pander the work in a way that makes it cheapened or ephemeral. And then being able to work backwards along that path: a lot of artists don’t get to experience that.

Yes. Well, they may, but it comes earlier. I guess I’ve applied a lot of what I’ve endured over the years of striving to find work, meaningful work as an actor, and build a career.

I definitely want to know, because you were talking about this process and this pathway to recognition: many young artists, actors, musicians feel that the odds or waves of chance are stacked against them on the route to personal and professional fulfilment. To those young artists: what would you want them to know?

You have to keep a sense of perspective. Ultimately, you have to know that any industry, any profession (creative or not) is highly competitive. Being a writer is extremely competitive, to be able to speak about things when you want to, the way you want to – to have that platform. To be a doctor is very competitive, to have a successful practice. If you’re yearning for something, and you are drawn to it, you have to have a degree of faith that at some moment, luck will come your way. It just may. It also may not. You can’t just be lucky, although some people are! [Laughs] In order to be lucky, you’ll have had to be ready for that. That comes from keeping your head down and your eyes and ears open. Be present, apply your suffering in those years. You gain a great deal of empathy by suffering, yourself, because then you know that other people are suffering in those shoes, right? And that doesn’t leave you.

It also depends on what your expectations are. The journey is what is most fulfilling. The accolades are wonderful, of course, or if you get to a place of financial security, to be compensated for the work that you do. But for most people, creation and the time spent creating – that evolution and that awakening of your soul is the beauty of doing it. There are plenty of opportunities to tap into that artistic sensibility, whether through knowledge or not, that should really be the determinant factor. But it’s daunting, I know that. Having an ambition, to yearn to be great. It’s understandable.

I think all of us at the magazine, we want to live inside our ambition, but still keep that sense of perspective that you spoke about.

Lastly, though, time is key. And how you spend your time – which I’ve only discovered much later in life! [Laughs] If you look back on what you have achieved or may not have achieved, and if you really spend time creating, evolving, then that’s all you need. If you spend a lot of time dreaming and wishing for things to be different, and not creating – if you really put it down, that’s the hardest thing.

How you choose to apply that time will really determine your own evolution, personally. Whether you’re getting a big show or not, if you’re painting and growing and staying immersed in those works, that’s the journey. If we hearken back to poor Van Gogh, was he a success? Not in his mind. He’s the greatest success, but also the greatest tragedy. He didn’t want to do anything else! His expectations, his dreams were different. He cultivated such greatness, that it’s undeniable and championed around the world. Basquiat had such a great deal of success, but had such a short amount of time. You look at this great contemporary artist, and his life was extinguished too soon.

There’s my morbidity and my humanity together! My mother, living in me! I can’t help but relate to that.

Photo credit: Chad Moore
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